Border Politics in Africa (2019)

in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics


African borders, which mostly follow the contours of the former colonies, are widely regarded as artificial and yet have enjoyed remarkable longevity. On the one hand, there have been relatively few serious secessionist and/or irredentist bids. On the other hand, a limited number of border disputes have been settled and mostly without recourse to conflict. This is often attributed to the willingness of states to accept the principle of the intangibility of borders inherited from colonialism and the associated legal principle of uti possidetis. Most claims to secession are based on a preexisting sense of territoriality, whereas there are relatively few that are premised on the rights of peoples to self-determination. It has been pointed out that claims to secession are often tabled as a bargaining position rather than as a nonnegotiable demand. However, the secession of South Sudan has created a genuine precedent, and there has been an upsurge of secessionist movements that reflects this reality. In addition, there has been a proliferation of fresh border disputes, which reflects the increased competition for valuable resources such as oil. This would suggest that some of the landscape of border politics is undergoing a shift.However, a number of factors continue to work in favor of the reproduction of existing borders. Paradoxically, the fact that guerrilla insurgencies tend to breed in borderlands, from where movements either aspire to take over the existing state or seek to carve out zones of de facto control, means that the borders themselves are not challenged. War economies depend on transboundary flows in which local populations themselves are deeply invested. Moreover, the flight of displaced populations and refugees toward borders may create greater insecurity at the margins but also tends to reinforce borders in both a legal and a practical sense. Finally, the struggle to determine the basis on which trade and transport is managed involves associational actors operating at the national level. Equally, fishermen, herders, farmers, and other local actors frequently invoke national affiliations to justify their own right to exploit resources within border zones. At the border itself, one observes a convergence of international, national, and local political scales in a particularly striking manner.